Of Eggs and Embryos

five day embryo

There is a saying that an egg is only a chicken to another chicken and to everything else it’s breakfast. This may be a humorous observation on natural selection in the animal kingdom but the assumptions behind the statement deserve reflection and investigation. There are two points being made in this aphorism:

• A thing has value only in relation to another thing.
• The value of that thing is relative to the other thing.

The illustration provides a rationale for a post-modern anthropology. What this is saying is an object, any object, is only valuable if someone or something says it is valuable. Things may have extrinsic value but intrinsic value is an illusion. Extrinsic value statements say things like, “Life is ultimately meaningless, but my life has meaning because I give it meaning.” An intrinsic value statement exclaims, “Life has (ultimate) meaning.” The first statement makes a claim that life has no value apart from what we bring to it. The second statement says life has value even if one denies that meaning. Extrinsic value can be separated from the object without damage, intrinsic value cannot be separated without damage. If that is clear we can make an observation as to why extrinsic value statements are a part of post-modern language. (The term post-modern carries with it a lot of baggage but for our purposes we mean post-modern to be a denial of absolute statements.) Modernism is characterized by the rejection of God. Post-Modernism is characterized by the destruction of man. Because we, as a culture, have rejected the notion of a Moral Law-Giver, values derived from that notion are jettisoned at the same time; albeit this is maybe not realized or acknowledged by some. The value we are most concerned with at present is the origination and installation of dignity.

Embryo at 5 Days
With the approval of California ‘s proposition 71 in the November 2004 general election, stem cell research is, and will continue to be, at the forefront of public discussion in California and most assuredly beyond its borders as well. Proposition 71 authorizes state bonds that will provide an average of $300 million per year over ten years to support embryonic stem cell research at California universities, medical schools and research facilities. Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) is regarded by doctors, researchers, politicians, theologians and janitors to be a potential fountain of fitness for those individuals who are suffering from a variety of diseases such as alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes as well as other neurological and debilitating disorders. These are terrible diseases to be afflicted with and one cannot be anything but moved to tears when a loved one suffers from these types of diseases but at what expense can we legitimately seek a cure?

I would like to introduce a thought that hopefully brings clarity to this moral issue beginning with a common evangelical protestation. What I am avoiding for the time is an answer beyond the general thought, but please don’t assume this is because a theistic rationale cannot be defended reasonably and rationally.

An embryo has many stages on the way to birth maturity, the stages are of some interest to us biologically but they are of no consequence theologically. The theological statement from our Lord, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” makes no developmental distinctions of our neighbor nor does a search of the rest of the canon yield such a distinction. Clues can be gleaned from the Scriptures that our neighbor in fact includes embryos; as from the brilliant poetry of David, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” As the argument goes: The embryo is, at the moment of conception, i.e. the sperm enters the ovum and thus an embryo or zygote is formed, a person. Most evangelical Christians maintain that this life is now sacred and may defend this sacredness by quoting the psalmist above. The standard retort that one receives if quoting from the 139 th Psalm is that this passage tells us nothing morally about a “bunch of cells in a petri dish”. The skeptic may even concede that abortion at any stage of gestation is immoral, but fail to conclude that this reading demonstrates that an embryo has any sacred status. This may in fact be the case from a certain logical understanding but the skeptic misunderstands the object. The object is not the child, the object of our attention is the Creator, and value courses from the Creator like a spring that feeds a fruit tree. The reason the fruit exists is because of the spring. The reason we exist is because of the Creator. Cut the spring off and the tree dies. Cut the Creator off and the creature dies.

embryos

This type of evangelical protestation, that mistakes its object, unintentionally results in the marginalization of the evangelical politic. We are indeed present, en masse, but our numbers suggest, nay, screams, a greater influence in the culture than we apparently have. May I submit that the reason for this is that, in our discourse, we have neglected the Creator in favor of the creature, the reasoner replaced the Reason. The open ended injunction that “We can’t play God ” suggests “We have no right.” The universal “we” is the object. Turning the question around suggests a different object. We should be asking “Whom gives us the right?” Now the autonomy of the speaker is in question, a much different dilemma. The sentiment expressed by the well meaning evangelical is true but the object of the statement is still our perception of the real. Rephrasing the question points to the objective , not through the subjective . The answer to the question, “Whom gives you the right?” demonstrates and exposes the faith of the speaker and our faith is in the risen Christ.

Now stop for a moment and think about this. If you assumed that dignity is an extrinsic quality akin to branding a horse with “Lazy B” on its right haunch, how would you answer the question? When I have asked the question to some of my friends I get a rather quizzical look. The question is a very strange question to answer for some people because our autonomy is presupposed as a matter of fact. It is almost like asking what color is the number 9? “Well, 9 has no color and I likewise answer to no one save me.” Now, maybe when we are gathered into eternity we will find that 9 is in fact green, which will be a surprise to me, but what won’t surprise me and what will absolutely astonish my unbelieving friends, is that we are not autonomous and we will have to answer for our thoughts and deeds done in this ephemeral existence.

So, the natural answer for the natural man becomes, “I make right” or some derivative of it. We decide which animals to brand it’s DNA with dignity and which animals to destroy. This answer makes perfect sense when one “deliberately forgets” the creation and our relation in it. And it is entirely reasonable for the quizzical looks and rather pointed arrows directed my way if in fact we are autonomous. It is like saying, “You should eat chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla,” and saying it with the kind of moral authority as if I really had the impression that this gentleman is going to hell if he continues to engage in that immoral gastrointestinal treat called vanilla. “Whom gives you the right,” therefore, assumes a moral demand whereas the former question makes a preference claim. Apart from knowledge of our relation to our maker and ourselves we have no tools to measure the difference. We are left with the moral equivalence of ice cream and infanticide. One becomes immoral only if cultural conventions or a social contract makes it so. And if that is the case then a monstrous world can be conceived where infanticide is a culturally acceptable thing and eating vanilla ice cream is punishable by death.

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